Just as millions of others across the United States, on Monday I enjoyed “The Great American Eclipse” for a few hours midday. The eclipse is one of those once-in-a-lifetime things that I didn't want to miss. Happily for this once-in-a-lifetime, I had the foreknowledge to plan and even enjoy with anticipation. I've had other once-in-a-lifetime times, but never with this kind of foreknowledge: times that floated down on me, where life suddenly offered a passing jewel of experience that I was lucky enough to grasp...if even for just a moment…a diamond in the Sun in front of me and I was sensitive enough to grasp it instantaneously. Of course I’ve had to let go, it’s being just a once-in-a-lifetime diamond, not really a coin that I could put in my pocket.
In my planning, I had ordered eclipse glasses a month ahead of time, but Amazon kept sending me emails announcing a later and later delivery. Fortunately, I also planned a Plan B—I could use my 50-year-old telescope to project an image of the eclipse safely onto a screen. On Monday morning, I received another Amazon email announcing the newest delivery date: August 23, two days after the eclipse (although interestingly 2420 days ahead of the 2024 eclipse!), confirming for me that Plan B would be the course for the day.
I had spent the night before cleaning the telescope, dusting the lenses, oiling the focus wheel…and thinking vividly about my grandmother, who had given me the telescope for a Christmas present in the 1960s. I found myself imagining her excitement at giving such a gift to her grandson, and her satisfaction at having me love it and use it so much. I found myself 50 years (or more) after that Christmas still enjoying every intricate piece of it, and enjoying a vivid memory of my grandmother, whom I lost 45 years ago! Now The Great American Eclipse had become uniquely and deeply once-in-a-lifetime for me: I’d be sharing my grandmother’s Christmas gift from 50 years ago with my wife and children and friends in a completely unimagined way.
I set up the telescope and carefully aimed it directly at the Sun…as I focused it onto my cardboard screen, I could see the tiniest incursion of the Moon’s shadow on the edge of the Sun’s intense white disk: the eclipse had begun and we watched it clearly, not with Amazon’s eclipse glasses, but with my grandmother’s Christmas gift. I constantly adjusted the telescope to track the Sun’s westward movement in the sky and we watched as the Moon slowly drifted eastward, covering more and more of the Sun. A little before maximum coverage—in Ocean City, NJ, we saw about 75% of the Sun covered by the Moon—we all noticed how the temperature had dropped several degrees and how the daylight had a grayness to it and how shadows were sharper.
We were not fortunate enough to have the spectacle of a total solar eclipse…that supposedly mystical moment when the darkness of night happens midday and invisible aspects of the Sun become visible. But we were very fortunate to have had a Plan B, to have had clear skies, to have had my telescope, and to have the time and sensitivity to enjoy this moment that comes but once-in-a-lifetime.